Robots come together to help overcome supply chain shortages in Britain
SOME 3000 boxy robots, each the size of a small refrigerator, scurry around a metallic checkerboard roughly seven times the size of a football field. Every second or so, we stop as a crate of groceries rises and settles inside. The bot then transports the checkout to an order picking station, where a human puts the orders in bags. This is the ‘Hive’ (pictured), a giant distribution center in Erith, south-east London, operated by Ocado, an online grocer. A AIThe controlled computer system choreographs the movements of the bots. Each travels about 60 km per day, helping to pack around 1 million items.
Brexit and the shortage of truck drivers means items are missing from supermarket shelves. But higher up in supply chains the picture is brighter, as a nation of traders has built one of the most advanced retail logistics in the world. With around £ 350,000 ($ 450,000) spent on warehouse automation in 2020, UK fulfillment and fulfillment centers are the most robotic in the world, according to Interact Analysis, a research group. In America, for comparison, the figure is $ 375,750.
Automation was first driven by high labor costs, explains Ash Sharma, Managing Director of Interact. Britain spends $ 18 per square foot on labor in warehouses, compared to $ 16 in America and $ 4 in China. But now the problem is labor shortages: “Businesses just can’t find workers. “
Britain was also one of the pioneers of electronic commerce. Amazon established its UK virtual store in 1998, three years after the US original. Its UK distribution centers use small, stocky robots to crawl under shelves and transport them to the people who choose and pack the right goods.
Online shopping has been the main source of demand. From just 3% in 2006, the share of UK retail sales made online rose to 26%. When Ocado began delivering groceries ordered online in 2002, there was little technology to automate the management of merchandise that needed to be kept cool or frozen. So he developed his own. Today, Ocado Group supplies robotics to other retailers. It builds 50 other Hive-type systems around the world.
On the shopping list
To keep pace, businesses need supply chains to become more efficient, not only for e-commerce, but also for physical stores, as the two have become linked. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a giant warehouse next to the M1 highway to Northampton. Cygnia, the logistics company that owns it, manages warehousing and fulfillment for around 30 retailers, selling products ranging from beer to beauty products. Its employees select and package tens of thousands of items, not only for online customers, but also for stores, beauty salons, and other businesses.
Things get hectic this time of year. A recent Black Friday offer by a customer resulted in an off-peak order volume of two days in an hour, said Scott Merrick, Cygnia’s chief information officer. The company also faces constant change, in the form of new products and personalized packaging like Christmas gift boxes. This is all a problem for robots, who, unlike humans, struggle with variety.
Nonetheless, they are coming. Cygnia was bought in September by Wincanton, a giant logistics company that started almost a century ago delivering milk to the West Country. It will introduce robots similar to some it uses elsewhere that function as automated carts, scavenging items to prevent workers from pushing items. Mr. Merrick expects a 200% increase in productivity with two-thirds less labor.
Cygnia says workers moved by robots will be redeployed, as the business is expected to grow. Indeed, automation can create jobs, not only for technicians and programmers, but also because better efficiency tends to generate additional business, says Rueben Scriven, senior analyst at Interact. He is already seeing signs of a sharp increase in warehouse employment.
How long this continues will depend on the ability of engineers to automate tasks that robots find difficult. It takes dexterity and knowledge not to drop a bag of potatoes on a box of eggs. Using sensors and AI, the penguin robots at the Ocado warehouse in Erith learn the ropes. They can already pick and package around 10% of the 50,000 product lines stored in the hive, says James Gralton, technical director of Ocado’s technology division. He thinks it could reach 60-80% over time.
Vehicles such as forklifts and freight carriers will also begin to be automated, said Ian Hunt, director of automation and engineering at Wincanton. And companies want to automate the “last mile,” the part of the supply chain that ends with the customer. Starship Technologies, an Estonian company, already offers robotic delivery to Northampton and Milton Keynes. Its six-wheeled pods ply the trails and cycle paths to deliver groceries from Co-op stores, using sensors to avoid people and other vehicles. Operators monitor pod progress through their cameras and can take control if needed. When pods arrive, they are unlocked by buyers using a mobile app.
As technologies improve and regulators allow, larger autonomous delivery vans using the roads will arrive. Wayve, a London-based startup, is conducting trials, some with Asda, a supermarket chain, and Ocado. For the moment, the vehicles have on board backup “safety drivers”. Trucks will also benefit from automated driving aids to make lane keeping and avoid other vehicles easier. But the complexity of their operations (trying to back up a big truck down a busy, narrow street to drop goods off at a convenience store) means heavyweight drivers will be in demand for years to come. ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Santa’s Little Helpers”